Some people may assume John Piper was born a Calvinist. Nope. In fact, his embrace of Reformed soteriology came at the expense of some very painful life experiences, some of which he shared in a 2002 sermon. Here’s Pastor John explaining one of those key moments from his life in seminary when he came face to face with Philippians 2:12–13 and Romans 9. Here he is to explain.
There are two experiences in my life that make Romans 9 one of the most important (if not the most important) chapter in the Bible in shaping the way I think about everything, and in determining where I have been led by God to minister — namely, at Bethlehem.
Doctrine and Life
The reason I open in this autobiographical way is not because it really matters what happened to me. What I think about anything or what I experienced about anything is really neither here nor there. I tell it autobiographically because the doctrines of Romans 9 are about life.
They’re about choices that you will make, behind which you will never turn again. You come to certain points in your life in crisis, and you know that if you cross the line, you’ll never go back again. And you need to know that that’s what we’re dealing with in Romans 9. This is not just about controversy. This is not just about intellectual thought. It’s not just about doctrine. It’s about what will happen to your life because of a vision of God and a vision of salvation that’s in this chapter.
God Who Works
When I entered seminary in 1968, I believed in the freedom of my will in the sense that I thought it was ultimately self-determining. I hadn’t learned that from the Bible; I had absorbed that from the self-infatuated, self-exalting, self-esteeming, self-sufficient air you and I breathe in this country every day. That’s where I had absorbed it. It isn’t in the Bible. Not one verse teaches the self-determining will of man, but I believed it just like most people believe it. The sovereignty of God meant to me that he can do anything with me that I give him permission to do. That’s what the sovereignty of God meant.
“Romans 9 is not just about controversy. This is not just about intellectual thought. It’s not just about doctrine.”
And with this frame of mind, I entered a class on Philippians taught by Daniel Fuller. And I entered a class on the salvation of man taught by Jaymes Morgan, who died of cancer while I was at Fuller. I hit head-on Philippians 2:12, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” And then I hit like a brick wall the ground clause in Philippians 2:13, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” Beneath my willing is God’s willing, and beneath my working is God’s working.
The question wasn’t, Do I have a will? The question was, Why do I will what I will? And the ultimate answer (not the only answer) was God.
Then I entered this systematic theology class with Jaymes Morgan. We dealt, as all systematic theology classes do, with the doctrine of election and grace. Romans 9 proved to be the watershed text in that class. I ran into these verses in Romans 9:11–12:
Though they [Jacob and Esau] were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad — in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls — she [Rebekah] was told, “The older will serve the younger.”
Before they had done anything good or evil, in order that election might stand, Esau was made subservient to Jacob. And it raises the question of the justice of God. And therefore, in Romans 9:14, we read in that class, and you can read right now in your Bible, “What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part?”
And he answers no. And he quotes Moses in Romans 9:15, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” Which raises the question of his irresistible will, which Paul raises in Romans 9:19, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” And he answers in Romans 9:21, “Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?”
Far Better Affair
Now, emotions run very high in a 22-year-old (or an 82-year-old), who finds his man-centered world collapsing around him. So, one day I met Jaymes Morgan in the hall, who was confronting me with these texts that were making me very angry and making me cry in the afternoon as I read my Bible.
I pulled my pen out of my pocket, and I stood in front of him. And after a few minutes of heated discussion, I held my pen in front of his face, and I dropped it on the floor. And with far less respect than a 22-year-old ought to have for a teacher, I said, “I dropped it. I dropped it” — as though that would settle the issue, as though there were no divine authority or power that might have somehow governed my dropping it. Emotions run very high when your world is collapsing.
By the end of the semester, it was in ruins. And I wrote in my blue book — I can picture the place in the class where I was sitting: “Romans 9 is like a tiger going about devouring free-willers like me.” And that was the end of my love affair with human autonomy and the ultimate self-determination of my will. And it was the beginning of a love affair with the supremacy of God.